United Japanese Christian Church celebrates 25 years of diversity and inclusion

By Carol Lawson-Swezey, Reporter

And then the two became one.

It took decades of consideration before the Christ United Methodist Church and the United Japanese Congregational Church decided to merge in 1990 and become the United Japanese Christian Church (UJCC).

Both ethnic churches, predominantly all Japanese and Japanese Americans, were located within blocks of each other in the old “Chinatown” section of West Fresno. The Methodists began in 1893 and the Congregationalists in 1908.

The property to build the newly merged UJCC was donated by the Clovis Community Church, a non-religious social organization. Prominent farmer and Clovis activist Fumio Ikeda, one of the leaders in that organization and a member of the Congregational church, proposed a 50/50 split of the five acre property.  Half would go to the Clovis Buddhist Church and half to the newly merged UJCC.

The properties were given free of charge with the understanding that the Clovis Community Church (CCC) could continue to meet in any building created by those churches at no cost.  Japanese pioneers from Clovis bought the land for about $600 during the Depression, said Mine Ikeda, Fumio’s widow. They moved an old building onto the site and used it as a community center.

The UJCC built the first phase of the church on that 2.5 acre gifted property.  The Clovis Buddhist Church received the portion of property with the original CCC building.   After adding classrooms, they then sold the property to the Charlie Keyan Armenian Community School, the current owners.

The merging of the two churches had its controversies. Proponents felt that a merging would help with decreasing church attendance, the economics of running a church and allow a move out of Fresno’s Westside, which had seen increasing crime. By the 1980s, very few church members lived on the Westside and church growth was seen as stifled by the area’s unsafe reputation.

Opponents of the merger felt the move would adversely affect Westside businesses and revitalization efforts and had concerns about shared leadership and distribution of funds to the two denominations.

Although talk of the merger began in the 1950s, the Rev. Roger Morimoto spearheaded serious discussion between the two churches in 1989. In January 1990, the first joint worship and Sunday school was held at the Japanese Congregational Church, and in July of 1995, the UJCC held its first worship in the new Phase 1 building.

The church, with its distinctive white steeple cross, was the work of Dyson, Karby and Seigrist, a partnership then newly created by Art Dyson, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright.

The first phase cost $1,251,000 and was paid off within three years of its completion.  With the purchase of adjacent property, the Phase II cost $1,184,935 and was paid off in three years. Much of that debt was expunged due to the extraordinary sacrifice and generosity of the congregation.

“Some parishioners donated the $20,000 they received from the U.S. Government as compensation for being interned during World War II,” said Tom Miyake, who volunteered as church secretary/treasurer those early years. “Another donated $25,000 toward the Sunday school classrooms and a nurse gifted over $100,000 to the building fund in her will which paid for the expansion of our kitchen.”

Over the past 25 years, UJCC has had nine different ministers and associate ministers including Rev. Morimoto and the currently serving pastor, the Rev. Akiko Miyake-Stoner. Rev. Mas Kawashima is the Japanese language minister.

Morimoto was initially the minister of the Christ United Methodist church, his first pastoral assignment at the time of the merger. He then went on to lead UJCC for 11 years, and has been the minister at the Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Palo Alto for 12 years.

Although in recent years, membership at UJCC has included many ethnically diverse new families, some original members have had deep roots in the church’s prior history. Jisaku and Toyo Kazato were founding members of the Japanese Congregational Church and the first couple married in that church.  Their grandson, Dr. Ernie Kazato, a retired emergency room physician, was chosen as one of three people to lead Phase I of the building program for the new church.  Church historians stress the hard work and perseverance of pioneer members like Fumio Ikeda, Shiz Takayama, June Toshiyuki and Aiko Ueyoka. All but Ueyoka have passed on.

The church merger also resulted in other unions. Paul Yamashita, a Methodist and his wife, Carol, a Congregationalist, met as students at Morimoto’s church youth group and eventually got married.

“Many couples have met through this wonderful group of fellowship and bible study,” Carol said. “There were mixed feelings about the merger but God worked through Rev. Roger and the leadership at the time to bring the people together as one UJCC.”

Rev. Morimoto said that he encountered “significant resistance” in merging the two churches, especially in the compromise of each congregation’s “cultural and family values.” Initially, while the church was still on the Westside of Fresno, worship alternated monthly at each location.

In a letter he wrote to the Ikeda family after Fumio’s passing in 2012, Morimoto praised Fumio for his passion and dedication in helping to launch and strengthen the newly formed UJCC.

“I have absolutely no doubt that without Fumio guiding us, the merger and the construction of the new church would never have happened,” Morimoto said. “Few knew of the ‘backroom politics’ that had to be worked through to make this merger possible. Fumio was able to not only work through some very ‘sticky’ situations but do so in a way that minimized conflict.”

UJCC strives to retain much of its Japanese culture and heritage and lends its site to a Japanese language school and summer cultural programs, an Asian Craft Fair and monthly delivery of authentic Japanese meals to shut-ins. The church also sponsors a crane ministry, where it sends paper cranes of hope, a Tomodachi senior activity group and a Nichigobu Japanese language ministry.

Despite the growing pains of merging two different denominations with distinctive ideas and leadership, the general consensus was that the union not only reinforced the struggling churches but mobilized and strengthened a whole new generation of proud Japanese-Americans. The churches’ name, United Japanese Christian Church, was the result of the sansei wanting to include the word Japanese in the title.

“The younger generation wanted the name ‘Japanese’ to remember the pioneers and what they did for our community,” said one of UJCC’s founders Aiko Uyeoka.

The torch has indeed been passed from the issei and nisei, first and second generations, to the third generation sansei and beyond.

“Being a historically and still predominantly Japanese-American congregation, our UJCC community has a collective knowledge of what it is like to be marginalized, through the immigrant experience and also through the internment experience during World War II,” said current pastor Rev. Miyake-Stoner.  “This gives us a unique lens through which to understand our call as Christians: because we have experienced marginalization first-hand, we have the spiritual resources for a deep sense of welcome and inclusion, just as Jesus did.  UJCC seeks to welcome people of all ethnicities and all walks of life; we continue to exercise our collective muscles for a more expansive welcome of all people.”